Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Chaucer: Motive and Mask
in the General Prologue

Ruth Nevo

The "National Portrait Gallery" theory of the General Prologue, so prevalent (if only as implicit assumption) in Chaucer criticism, is even on the face of it unlikely to be adequate. The claim, to take a fairly recent statement of it, is that Chaucer "presents his characters in the jumble and haphazardry of life . . . in a deliberately disordered chain" ( Coghill). But this is art, not life; and an art as accomplished, subtle, and inclusive as Chaucer's is likely to be achieved as a result of deliberate order, not deliberate disorder. Chaucer's irony, moreover, as I shall try to show, is so often precisely not a function of local "tone of voice" that, unless it has the whole structure of the work to support it, it is apt in places to waver out of focus altogether; witness, for instance, such face-value readings of the Prioress as that of Kittredge.

Chaucer's method of characterization indeed has been a constant stumbling block to criticism. On the one hand, the astonishing individuality and variety—of behaviour, of posture, of complexion, even of finely discriminated and lovingly detailed articles of clothing—in the presentation of the pilgrims has tempted critics to regard them as sui generis, as gloriously capricious and unique "characters" in the English sense of "eccentrics." Kemp Malone takes this view, and explains it thus: "His pilgrims, if they were to be of interest to the reading public, had to be unusual, striking, remarkable in every possible way.... He makes no serious effort to be true to life, when he characterizes his pilgrims. One and all, they are too

____________________
From The Modern Language Review 58, no. 1 ( January 1963). © 1963 by the Modern Humanities Research Association.

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